When the Baltimore Orioles consider their future, one idea should stand above all others. Cal Ripken, who hit his 400th career homer last night, should be as big a part of it and on as extensive a basis as possible for as long as possible.

The desire to put old superstars out to pasture is always intense in baseball. We can't be mean enough fast enough. If ownership or the front office isn't hot to do the nasty deed, then the press is usually up to the job.

Just this week, rumors have been flying within the dysfunctional Orioles family, this time emanating from the office of the rookie general manager, that perhaps the shape of things to come should include Eugene Kingsale in center field in 2000. That would push Brady Anderson to left field, B.J. Surhoff to third base and Ripken from third to . . . well . . . you know, first base or designated hitter or part-time duty. Something or other. After all, he's 39.

The worrisome implication in any move that leaves Ripken's status at all uncertain is that the Orioles may be too dumb to know what they've got.

In the absence of a contending team, only one Oriole really matters: Ripken. Only one Oriole makes you flip on the TV or radio when you have better things to do or go to a game on a hot night against a dull foe: Ripken.

The month of August, which Ripken missed with a back injury, only reinforced this fact. Time and again on vacation, I decided to watch the Orioles only to think, "Ripken's out. Why bother?" And, usually, I didn't.

After 18 seasons of taking him somewhat for granted, I realized that the unacknowledged but central focus of thousands of Orioles games has been Ripken. He doesn't demand that constant subliminal attention. But he commands it. Like Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr., Sammy Sosa or Mark McGwire, you watch the game with one eye and The Man with the other. You know history is on the field.

Last night, Ripken reminded us once again of how much we are going to miss him when he is finally gone. And, also, of how angry we are going to be if anybody pushes him out of the regular lineup, or off third base, or out the door one day sooner than necessary on the ludicrous grounds that it is somehow better for the Orioles.

On Wednesday, in his first game back from the disabled list, Ripken looked terrible. He struck out and grounded into two double plays. His swing was late on everything. And why shouldn't it be? His rehab assignment consisted of two days of taking some ground balls at third base and a bit of batting practice. Rusty? You couldn't knock the barnacles off that creaky swing with a chisel.

"Don't worry. You won't have to remake the paper for number 400," I told my editor yesterday. "You and I and Ripken have the same chance of hitting a home run tonight -- none. He won't hit a ball to the left of second base. He looks awful. Give him a few days to get his timing back."

A few days? Actually, he needed two more at-bats. In the third inning, he absolutely murdered a curveball 20 rows into the left field seats.

If the Orioles underestimate what they have in Ripken, even at 39, shame on them. He entered the game with the highest combined slugging average plus on-base percentage on the entire team -- an excellent measure of overall productivity. He's got the fastest bat speed, measured by the radar gun, on the whole squad, including Albert Belle. He's only 39 on paper. His bat has been 29 all season.

If, through back surgery or rehab or good luck, Ripken can stay healthy next year, he shouldn't be moved to first base or cut back to part time or platooned or any other nonsense. He should stay at third base, where he's still above-average defensively. If anything, he should be moved back up in the lineup to No. 6 or, when he's hot -- as he's been since May -- to No. 5.

Under Terry Crowley's tutelage, Ripken is that good once more, that powerful, that dangerous, even against the kind of top-stuff right-handed pitchers who've been making him look silly for the last couple of seasons.

Above all, the Orioles need to remember that Ripken isn't primarily a Hall of Famer who's getting old. Rather, he's a fabulously conditioned athlete who finally -- for the first time in his career -- has found a hitting coach whom he trusts and who has salvaged his mangled mechanics.

The Orioles owe it to themselves, to Ripken and especially to the young players who will be arriving in the next couple of years, to have Ripken in the lineup as much as is prudent. How much is that? With his back so problematic, nobody knows for sure, including Ripken.

But why assume the worse? Maybe he can still play 140 games or more. If he's willing, and says his back works okay, then let him try.

As Ripken approaches his 3,000th hit during the last month of this season, it's going to be enormously tempting to see Ripken as a great man putting the final limited touches on his masterpiece. Soon, he'll probably be voted the starting shortstop on the All-Century Team. Let's not be too quick to bronze him. That's doing an injustice to a man who's batting .330 and has never hit the ball harder or more consistently, even in his MVP years.

A few players actually get better as they get older. This season, Harold Baines, at 40, has a realistic chance to hit 30 home runs for the first time in his marvelous career. Ripken has never had a season with 35. Yet this year, he's got 16 in 276 at bats. His power pace has increased with the season.

Let's ignore those who concern themselves with how to manage Ripken's declining years so that he disrupts the Orioles youth movement the least. Instead, let's figure out how to defend him from naysayers so that, next year, Ripken has a fair chance to follow in Baines's footsteps.

If Ripken's given a chance to slug the way he now can, rather than simply act his age, he might become the first man in history to hit 35 homers for the first time after he's passed his 40th birthday.